The right chemistry

Green gauge: new chemical handling hubs need to take the environment into consideration. Credit: Newport Industries
Green gauge: new chemical handling hubs need to take the environment into consideration. Credit: Newport Industries
Large share: 10% of the world's maritime chemical flows come from or go to Antwerp. Credit: Port of Antwerp
Large share: 10% of the world's maritime chemical flows come from or go to Antwerp. Credit: Port of Antwerp
Gains: the chemical sector offers considerable opportunities for ports. Credit: Port of Antwerp
Gains: the chemical sector offers considerable opportunities for ports. Credit: Port of Antwerp

Chemical handling is booming for ports willing to invest in modern techniques. John Bensalhia reports

Handle with care: three important words for many kinds of work environment, including the handling of chemicals. In this case, 'Handle with care' applies on a number of levels: the right knowledge and learning from a safety angle; high standards of training; and of course, looking ahead to the future with the right development plans.

The chemical sector continues to be a thriving, evolving one that brings in considerable opportunities for ports that are able to provide new facilities for the constant demand of chemicals. For example, the Port of Antwerp has selected the northern and southern areas of Delwaide Dock for a new ERS (Energy Recovery Systems) development.

The land will be used for a new production unit for green ammonia and green urea (chemical fertiliser). The E3.7bn investment will not only create 900 job opportunities, but it's said that port traffic could increase by at least four incoming ships a day and 35 outgoing ships a year.

The Port of Antwerp is the most active European specialised chemical logistics hub, owing to 10% of the world's maritime chemical flows coming from or going to Antwerp. The site of Delwaide Dock was chosen for the project for many reasons, such as its position in the centre of a chemicals cluster, its easy accessibility for ships, and its strong rail and road infrastructures. Once the new factory is operating at full capacity, ERS will be able to process 3.5m tons of waste material a year to obtain 1.2m tons of green urea and 645,000 tons of green ammonia.

Meanwhile, Royal Vopak, the Dutch tank storage company, has extended a new industrial terminal at Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Industrial Port. The two-part deal is through Royal Vopak's joint JCSSC (Jubail Chemicals Storage & Services Co) venture with Saudi Basic Industries Corp.

In November 2015, Sadora Chemical Company sold a 348,000 cubic metre  tank farm at the port to JCSSC. This farm will be next to the JCSSC 220,000 cubic metre development of storage, port terminal and related port facilities that are under construction and planned for commission in the second quarter of this year.

Challenges ahead

But as this sector continues to prosper, what are the challenges facing ports? “The challenges facing ports with regards to chemical handling come from many and varied stakeholders,” says David Bradley, operations director designate, Newport Industries, “both directly and indirectly involved with the trading process.”

Mr Bradley says that it is important to ensure uniformity in approach, but this is where manual intervention often causes problems. “Hence, most modern port discharge processes try to minimise this as far as possible or remove human intervention altogether. Far too often, businesses look at lower cost options whereas higher value options are by far the better long term approach.”

An example given by Mr Bradley is the handling of materials, either in bulk, container or palletised form. “The handling of bulk material in particular has moved forward significantly from using systems where grab, to lorry, to store, etc. was by far the norm. It is now possible to discharge using material handling systems directly to silos and then onwards to customers using auto loading conveying and automatic valve arrangements which completely take out the human element. Couple this with computerised control in the silos and links to financial packages and accurate billing and stock control is now significantly more achievable than has previously been the case.”

This is a major step forward in terms of accuracy of stock and ensuring that the customer can access their orders in a timely manner. “In terms of cost of running port handling systems, improvements in health and safety in areas such as exposure, ergonomics and the myriad of risks associated with manually discharging large vessels, the improvement opportunities of an approach such as this are obvious.”

Positive outcome

This approach also has a positive impact on external stakeholders to any business. “No chemical handling business can afford to operate in glorious isolation and moves towards environmental friendliness means that automatic handling systems will reduce the impact of chemical handling in a port and its environs,” says Mr Bradley. “At a time where commercial operations are often feeling a squeeze from harbours looking to gain high value returns for their land masses through housing and its associated leisure activities, it is essential that new developments consider these issues in terms of noise, emissions such as dust and general ergonomics. This is why moving to processes that employ units such as suction discharge to contained silos are seen as positive in the eye of port authorities and often have a positive effect of planning discussions.

“By utilising approaches and new developments such as this, chemical handling businesses can have a long term future in deep water ports. This allows businesses to take advantage of historically low freight rates without causing distress to their neighbours and become a valued part of the economics of the area of operation.”

One of the most important requirements for chemical handling is to have the right qualifications and knowledge for the job. “Probably the best qualifications for chemical handling roles would be in the field of chemical engineering,” says Mr Bradley. “Depending on the nature of the role, there are numerous institutions which offer courses from HND to degree level with a bias towards chemical handling within selective units.”

He explains that there are many courses that now offer placement positions of approximately 12 weeks. These can give prospective engineers hands-on experience in the industry. “Most companies would agree that a hands-on experience is as valuable as book knowledge in this area.

“The best way to keep up to date with new technologies and practices tend to be through professional membership of organisations such as the Institute of Chemical Engineers which offer ongoing professional development and access to numerous publications. This also offers a forum to discuss issues of interest and a professional route to accessing cutting edge technologies and approaches in the industry.”

Also popular are apprenticeships, which Mr Bradley describes as “an excellent route into the industry".

“Recent improvements in the courses that colleges are offering have managed to marry an academic approach with key hands on skills which provides prospective employees with a strong grasp of what is required to be successful in the industry.”


Various commercial ventures provide training for chemical handling. However, Newport Industries' David Bradley says that a drawback is that few offer bespoke packages which are specifically tailored towards ports.

“Handling chemicals in a port has its own peculiar risk. Rarely would there be a greater risk for the potential for the spillage of hazardous material into a water course. It is considerably more difficult to have spill traps, especially working in a port situation discharging chemicals on an open berth.

“As with other issues, automation is often the best approach to minimise the risks. However, all involved need to be trained in proper handling procedures and what to do in the event of spillage, release of toxins or fire. It might be anticipated that with continued growth in this area that it is only a matter of time before more targeted and bespoke courses become available to the industry as a whole.”

But could there be a greater emphasis on special chemical training at ports in the future? A report from IPPMedia looked at the importance of chemical training in the Tanzania region. Between January and October 2015, 472,393 tonnes of chemicals were imported into the country.

At a recent two-day chemical workshop, chief government chemist professor Samuel Manyele expressed the importance of port workers having the right knowledge to handle toxic chemicals, in particular, those which could pose a risk to the environment and public health. With the right level of training, this ensures that unnecessary chemical-related accidents can be prevented.

Professor Manyele added that talks were continuing with neighbouring countries with respect to seeking methods of preventing chemical hazards. The message to take from Professor Manyele's presentation is that a clearer picture is required on how to control toxic chemicals to ensure that ports are clean and safe.


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